Dealing with Stress & Anxiety: Tips from Our Inner Neanderthal, 2
As we saw in the first part of this post, we stand to learn important things about dealing with stress and anxiety by looking at our evolutionary heritage.
This post builds on Part 1, focusing on what evolutionary and archetypal psychology can teach us about dealing with stress and anxiety.
3. Nothing’s Too Modern about “Modern Anxiety”
While modern life may provide many stressors and sources of anxiety, the actual mechanisms of anxiety have their roots in our biological self, and are hundreds of thousands, if not millions of years old.
As Prof. Anthony Stevens states, “to be in the grip of a phobia is to realize the power of an autonomous complex operating at an ancient and unconscious level of the brain.” In the last post, we looked at the evolutionary basis of some of these phobias. Similarly, we can see the evolutionary roots of many other types of experience that are related to anxiety.
Panic, for instance. Researchers such as Prof. R. M. Nesse and Columbia’s Dr. Donald F. Klein have made good cases to establish that panic is an evolutionarily-programmed response to situations such as suffocation, or, in fact, to any situation which requires escape via energetic flight.
Also, as far back as the 1920s, researcher W.B. Cannon showed that anxiety itself is a form of vigilant response that enables us to be alert to changes in our surroundings, preparing us to meet any emergency situations that arise. He showed the connection between anxiety and the body state of arousal which is activated by centres in the limbic system of the brain.
4. Dealing with Stress & Anxiety: Getting the Balance Right
Emotions are adaptive responses that evolution has provided. They serve to keep us safe, and get us through demanding situations. We now know that we experience anxiety when cues associated with a possible danger have been perceived, but before we get an accurate picture of the real nature of the danger.
This is important, because, as Hans Selye, the famous stress researcher established, organisms perform best when subjected to moderate amounts of stress. We need to be conscious of this, and avoid putting ourselves into states where the level of stress is so high as to be noxious, even possibly dangerous. But by the same token, we need to find ways to avoid getting ourselves into a headspace where any amount of stress seems intolerable, as this, too, is going to keep us out of the mainstream of our lives.
5. Don’t Just Smash the Warning Light
Self-acceptance and self-knowledge are the heart of /a-midlife-transition, and have a lot to do with dealing with stress and anxiety in ways that work for us. We have a choice to listen to the wisdom of the 2,000,000 year old man when it comes to stress and anxiety, or to ignore his wisdom and basically go to war with him. That last thing is likely not going to go well.
Anxiety is like a flashing red warning light. The best way to deal with such a flashing light is not to smash it, or just figure out how to turn it off, but to figure our why it has started to flash.
As Prof. Nesse puts it, “The capacities for anxiety and mood were shaped by natural selection because they have been useful…. [S]ome conditions that seem like diseases are actually defences.”
Our anxiety is telling us something essential about our lives. If we can listen, hearing our own being and our unconscious mind, anxiety may well lead us toward something that can gives a greater sense of harmony and completeness in our lives. However, there is no alternative to doing the hard work of getting inside our anxiety, understanding why it’s there, and how it actually affects us.
Finding ways to listen to our own being, and understanding what really motivates us, are key part of our journey to wholeness.
Brian Collinson, Registered Psychotherapist & Jungian Analyst